Cowboys right tackle Terence Steele was just 23 years old, an undrafted free agent rookie signed out of Texas Tech, when he got the nod. Injuries to veteran La’el Collins and backup Cam Erving had forced Steele into the starting lineup in Dallas. It wasn’t always pretty- and was often decidedly ugly- but Steele played in every game of the season and started 14 of them. Whether that said more about Steele’s potential or the Cowboys’ dire straits in 2020 was cause for debate among fans.
This season was supposed to be different, with the healthy return of the veteran anchors along the offensive line. When Collins was suspended for five games following the season opener, Steele found himself pressed into service once again as a starter. This time around, though, he’s been nearly invisible in a position where that’s a hallmark of a solid performance. And now that Collins is eligible to return, many are openly questioning if the former LSU star should get his starting job back at all, a notion that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Even Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones hedged his bets when asked on Dallas radio Monday if Collins would be instantly reinstalled as the starter after playing in just one of the team’s last 22 games.
“We’re very confident that he’s going to totally get back to where he was,” Jones said of Collins on 105.3 The Fan. “I think the bigger question is: after sitting out five games, does he need some time? And certainly that’s what [offensive line] Coach [Joe] Philbin and [head coach] Mike [McCarthy] and [offensive coordinator] Kellen [Moore] will be looking at this week, is to just see where he is as we really get out and start to put bodies on each other and start to get a feel for where his conditioning is, and where he is in terms of being ready to play.”
His linemates also seem to know it’s not a given he’ll be in action on Sunday. Guard Zack Martin was particularly ambiguous, saying, “We’ll see what happens moving forward,” in an answer Monday about Collins’s return.
Cowboys RG Zack Martin on RT La’el Collins’ return from suspension: “It will be big. We’re excited to have him back. I know he’s champing at the bit to get out there and run around with everyone. We’ll see what happens moving forward, but I know he’s excited to be back.”
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 25, 2021
Even offensive line coach Joe Philbin allowed for the possibility that Steele could stay put in the lineup. Thinking back on his long experience as an NFL coach, Philbin says there is no blanket rule dictating that Collins’s starting role is automatically handed back to him right out of the box
“Not necessarily,” Philbin said last week. “Every situation, I think, in football is unique. I think you just do it on a case-by-case basis, and you do the things that are in the best interest of the football team. I’m sure the coach, at the end of the day, those are the decisions that will be made.”
The decision will be made tougher by how much Steele has progressed in a relatively short period of time.
“I think Terence played- I’m throwing out a broad number- 1,000 plays, maybe, last year. [Ed. note: In 2020, Steele saw 970 offensive snaps and another 78 on special teams.] He played a bunch of football for us. I think he’s improved. I think he’s gotten better. He’s a very, very hard-working individual. I’m certainly pleased with the contribution he’s made. Excited to have La’el back with us, and looking forward to working with him. And as we get ready for Minnesota, we’ll prepare these guys to play, and then Coach McCarthy will make a decision that’s in the best interest of the team. But excited to have La’el back, for sure.”
While Collins was forced to sit for five games and was not allowed to practice with the team, he was able to be in the team facility on a limited basis. That should make his re-acclimation to game speed better than if he were coming back in cold.
“He’s been here,” Philbin explained. “I haven’t been with him, working on the field, obviously, for five weeks. So it’s going to be important when we get back here to get on the field together and see where he’s at. But all the reports are good. He feels good. I’ve seen him, obviously, in the meetings, communicated with him. Like I said, I’m looking forward to getting back on the practice field with him.”
That answer certainly hints at something of a competition at the position. If the coaching staff is truly going to leave the door open, Philbin knows Steele will be ready to answer opportunity’s knock.
“As I say to the players, the great thing about football, or athletics, or probably in business at Dr. Pepper, it really doesn’t matter where you start. If you get into the building, it doesn’t matter if you’re a first-rounder, a fourth-, a seventh-, your first contract… Really, it matters what you do on a daily basis. He’s taken ahold of an opportunity. He’s done a good job. He still has, obviously, a lot of ways that he can improve and get better. But I think that’s really the beauty of athletics and sports in general, football in particular. It doesn’t matter. Right now it doesn’t matter how many Pro Bowls Zack or Tyron [Smith] have been to; you’ve got to go out there every Sunday and get challenged. The one thing about being an offensive lineman: you’re in a physical confrontation every single snap. You’ve got to be ready for that.”
But are the Cowboys ready to bench Collins, seen for years as one of the anchors of the team’s offensive line?
“I didn’t say that,” Jones cautioned. “I’m just saying that they’ll certainly evaluate him and see how his week goes after sitting out for five weeks.”
Clarity will come as kickoff approaches. But right now, at least as it pertains to the right tackle position in Dallas, there’s a lot of gray area in the land of blue and silver.